A Manual for Your Brain or How to Remember What You’ve Read

Written by: Ben Kennedy
Topic: Learning

I wrote this post because I was having trouble remembering the details of books I had read several months ago.

Distraction was becoming an increasingly serious issue and I wanted to focus on material that would help me to retain and utilise the information I learned more effectively.

The world is evolving more quickly and being able to adapt by rapidly learning new technical skills and their underlying principles will be one of the most powerful human assets in the future.



Below is mainly a summary of key concepts from the book A Mind For Numbers by Barbara Oakley.


There are 2 modes of learning in the brain:

1. Focus mode – like a pinball machine with tightly spaced bumpers which allows fast connections for the thought ‘ball’ to ping against. It uses familiar brain pathways and is conscious, logical and rational.

2. Diffuse mode – the bumpers are spaced much further apart allowing more broad ranging ways of thinking. This is used to understand new ideas and make creative leaps. Unconscious and non linear.

It’s best to alternate between the 2 modes. Spend time focussing intently for a period of 25 mins, then let the diffuse mode take over for 5 mins by going for a coffee or a short walk. Repeat this cycle 3 more times (making a total of 100 focussed minutes in 4 sessions), then take a longer break.

Procrastination (neural discomfort about a task) is the biggest inhibitor to learning. Use the Pomodoro timing technique outlined above to overcome this by deciding to focus on process rather than final outcome. I use the focus keeper app for this.

“I’m going to work on this for 25 minutes and then take a break” (process) versus “I’m going to finish the final design.” (product)

Practice and repetition is particularly important for understanding challenging topics.


It works in 2 ways:

1. Working memory – 4 ‘slots’ which can be easily forgotten or erased like a blackboard.

2. Long term memory – like a storage warehouse which can have memories transferred to it from the working memory by using practice and repetition via recall.


A chunk is a compact synthesis of key ideas.

They can grow large and complex but still only take up one ‘space’ of the four working memory slots.

Chunks are most easily built by:

— Focused attention on the topic
— Understanding of the material
— Practice and repetition

Recall is a very powerful form of ‘mini testing’; repeating the freshly learned material from memory. Mistakes are useful because they highlight gaps in your knowledge.

‘Transfer’ is applying a chunk acquired in one skill and using it to learn another more quickly.

Interleaving learning will accelerate progress. Practicing different aspects of the topic of varying difficulty levels in the same session.

Flexibility in composition is also required for expertise once the key chunks have been acquired.

Avoid ‘illusions of competence’ i.e. fooling yourself that you’re learning when you’re actually not by:

— Using deliberate practice of more difficult material
— Testing yourself (recall is a good way of mini testing)
— Minimise highlighting (less effective than note taking)

Einstellung (a ‘rut’) is an existing chunk which stops you from solving a problem in a new or creative way.

Luck happens when exposing yourself to more and more ideas and ways of thinking so that you are more likely to spot opportunities.


Successful learning involves bit by bit and day by day building of solid neural scaffolds. The same way a body builds muscle – gradually.

— Keep a journal of what does and doesn’t work.
— Commit to a to do list the night before so that the diffuse mode can strategise the list whilst you’re asleep.
— Reward yourself regularly, but delay these until after a task is completed.
— Watch for procrastination cues.
— Remove distractions
— Create a backup plan for when you procrastinate
— Eat your frogs first. Work on the most difficult or uncomfortable item first when you are fresh.


Practice and repeat key concepts to chunk them and store them in long term memory.

Humans have outstanding visual and spatial memory systems.

Visual – create evocative, synaesthetic images to help remember something.

Use meaningful groups which simplify material. Associate numbers with years, create sentences to remember the first letters of a verbal sequence. “Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain” for the rainbow colour sequence.

Employ the memory palace technique.


Summarising key concepts in your own words in book margins or handwritten notes is one of the best ways to understand and remember material as you are absorbing new information.

Metaphors and analogies help your brain to visualise and compare new information to existing chunks in your mind and learn faster.

Even imperfect ones are highly effective.

Reviewing answers in a test or points in a presentation after taking a short break helps to employ the diffuse mode to analyse the material from a ‘global perspective’.

Another way to effectively employ the diffuse mode is to review the material with other people who can help you identify where your focus mode maybe making errors.

Fear and excitement are very close psychophysiological responses in your mind. When anxieties about a presentation or exam come up use this fact to tell your brain “I am excited to be progressing my career” or “I am excited by the chance to learn”.

Amy Cuddy’s work on power posing is also useful here which offers scientific evidence proving how you hold yourself literally makes a difference to your confidence level. Leaning back in your seat and placing your palms on the back of your head signals to your brain (and others) that you are relaxed and in control. This decreases the stress hormone cortisol and increases testosterone.

If you’re worried about an upcoming situation, drop into diffuse mode for a moment or two. Use the 4 step ‘box breath’ (inhale for four seconds, hold for four, exhale for four, hold for four and repeat) to centre yourself and then return to the task.

Learning is a process. Traditional education focuses on end product which can be anxiety inducing and lead to procrastination.

Growth mindset. When the mind concept is approached like a “muscle”, the more you use it, the stronger it gets (when used with alternating rest periods).


This section is mainly taken from ideas put fourth by @zaoyang on deep learning and the book Seeking Wisdom by Peter Bevelin.


Building on the idea of learning as a process is that it is also “intellectual compounding”.

Buffet and Munger used this concept to build mental models of the world which allow them to make decisions quickly processing vast amounts of data through many different decision tress in very short timeframes.

Intuition is simply reading a lot (understanding and retaining this information so it can be processed quickly).

This allows someone to turn slow or inaccurate fast thinking (intuition via diffuse mode) into more reliable intuition.

Success is indicated by how someone makes decisions. Investing your time in the right area at the right time is a skill, not purely ‘luck’.

Reading and note taking allows your brain to use both focused (reading and retaining) and diffuse mode (creative) to wander and make associations after the digestion of the material.

As the world gets faster with AR, VR, AI and Crypto the ability to invest in your own intellectual capital will be the most valuable asset.


A fixed mindset is the most damaging mental model. EG “I’m just not good with numbers”.

However, “I can learn to get better with numbers” is a growth mindset and the most desirable place to be.

These can be different for each skill set. For example, you may have a growth mindset for physical items at the gym but a fixed mindset for maths and a fixed mindset for humour.

It takes conscious work to change a mindset. It is one thing to intellectually understand that you ‘need’ a growth mindset, but if you have a fixed attitude it has been ingrained from childhood and must be unlearned and the new growth mindset consciously experienced repeatedly to become a new belief.

Most people have so much going on in their lives that they find it hard to study and learn new subjects so their mental models (decision trees) never grow big enough to make smart decisions or handle truly complex ideas.


Approach each fixed mindset and turn them one by one. “I’m just not good with numbers.” Take a beginner course (using the techniques in part one above) and go as simple as you need to begin and avoid procrastination. Once mastered, do an intermediate course and then an advanced. Through conscious learning you will have proved to yourself that your brain is in fact “good with numbers”.

This ‘chunk’ will then transfer “perhaps I can learn other subjects I thought I was no good at”.

Positive self talk isn’t enough, applied learning is the only thing that will change a mindset.

— — —


This section has been mainly noted from Josh Waitzkin’s phenomenal book The Art of Learning.

Learning to perform at the highest level requires training your subconscious to deliver explicit focus on demand.

To succeed at a critical moment in time, one has to practice patterns in everyday life so that they become second nature in stressful moments. One needs to build a trigger.

The first question to ask is:

When do you feel closest to serene focus in your life?

Some examples of activities which could build a trigger routine to cultivate a state of serene focus:

10 mins Blended Shake
10 mins Stretching Exercises
10 mins Breathing Exercise
1 min Cold Shower
5 mins Inspiring Music Track

The routine activities should be bespoke to the individual – whatever is most effective and the final activity should be the most joyful and inspiring.

Do this consistently for 1 month recording its use everyday. Crossing off each day helps to build a positive association with a chain of progress.

After fully internalising this routine, do it before an important meeting or event where you need to perform well.

This should put you ‘in the zone’ for the particular event.

Transplant the routine from a prelude to the joyful event to a prelude to work.

A physiological connection is formed between the routine and the activity it precedes.

Once the routine is internalised it can be used before any activity and a similar state of mind will emerge.

The aforementioned routine is useful because it is relatively portable and conducive to a mellow presence.

Once effectively created how do you turn the routine into something immediately useable?

How can I click into the zone at a moment’s notice?

Create a lower maintenance, more flexible trigger by:

Making small incremental changes shortening the routine. After the first month reduce each adaptable stage of the routine by a small amount.

For example week 5:

Remove the shake if you’re not hungry
8 mins Stretching Exercises
8 mins Breathing Exercise
50 sec Cold Shower
4 mins Inspiring Music Track (the first 4 mins)

Week 6:

6 mins Stretching Exercises
6 mins Breathing Exercise
40 sec Cold Shower
3 mins Inspiring Music Track (the first 4 mins)

The key is making small changes so there is more similarity than difference to the routine after each change.

By Week 10 it may look like this:

1 min Stretching Exercises
1 min Breathing Exercise
10 sec Cold Shower
30 sec Inspiring Music Track (the first 30 sec)

Eventually reduce the length of the track until you can simply imagine listening to it and your mind is in the zone.

This concept is based around the most stable of all principles: incremental growth.

Ideally learn the routine in the most inspiring setting you can – anything which initially contributes to the feeling of serene focus will be beneficial in putting you in that state.

The ideal for any performer is flexibility. If you have the optimal conditions then go through an extended routine your body and mind can enjoy.

If not, have an ultra condensed routine and a flexible state of mind.

The chances are your opponents won’t be as adaptable without the same training.

This extends far beyond the boardroom or competition arena. You could be driving your car or crossing the street and be confronted with a dangerous situation where you need to be ‘in the zone’ to save your life.

Even more critical than these rare moments, these practices can raise our quality of life.

It makes a person more aware of the present moment, the detail of life becomes more explicit. The notion of boredom becomes absurd as we naturally soak in the subtleties of the banal.

Presence taught Josh Waitzkin how to live.


Anger is one of the most decisive emotions.

99% of competitors are at least somewhat thrown by anger.

First accept responsibility. You are the one who allows themselves to get angry. Seek out situations which make you angry and identify why it is happening.

Are you scared of an outcome or embarrassed? Fear is often the underlying emotion because a weakness has been revealed.

As you learn to channel the energy in a positive way, increase your exposure to more extreme situations which would typically make you more and more angry.

Recognise the relationship between anger, ego and fear.

Develop the habit of taking on technical weakness whenever someone pushes your limits instead of falling back to a self protective indignant pose.

Once this distinction has been made you are free to learn about yourself.

If someone gets in your head they are doing you a favour. The obstacle is the way.

Competitors who block out anger or fear will fail when pushed far enough.

The only way to succeed in high stake situations is to acknowledge reality and funnel it.

Take the nerves and use them, turning your natural states into an advantage. We must be prepared for imperfection.

“I was unhindered by internal conflict—a state of being that I have come to see as fundamental to the learning process.”

By using meditation techniques we can learn to sit with emotions, learning our unique flavours and ultimately discover deep pools of inspiration. Once we learn to ride the waves rather swim against them we can pick up immense speed.

Funnel primal heat into penetrating focus.

Turn weakness into strength until there is no denial of our natural eruptions, and nerves sharpen our game. Fear alerts us, anger fuels heightened attention.

Discover what states of mind work best for you and build condensed triggers so you can pull from your deepest reservoirs of creative inspiration at will.


Great artists and competitors are masters of navigating their own psychologies and playing to their strengths.

They control the tone of the battle so it fits with their personalities. Being true to your natural disposition is critical at all stages of the learning process.

High end learning principles spring out of a deep creative plunge into an initially small pool of inspiration.

Lay a solid foundation by studying positions of reduced complexity (end game before opening) to a microscopic degree.

Once internalised, these principles are applied to increasingly complex scenarios.

Making smaller circles – we take a single technique or idea and practice it until we feel its essence.

Then we gradually condense movements while maintaining their power. This gives us an invisible arsenal.

Focus on a select group of techniques and internalise them until the mind perceives them in tremendous detail.

After training in this way, we can see more frames in an equal amount of time, so things feel slowed down.

Once we have felt the profound refinement of a skill, no matter how small it may be – we can then use that beacon of quality as we expand our focus into more and more material.

Principle of penetrating the macro through the micro is a critical idea in the development process.

Champions emerge from a profound awareness of their unique strengths and who are exceedingly skilled in guiding the battle in that direction.

Creativity is always built on a foundation.

Visualise that you are building a pyramid of knowledge.

Every level is constructed of technical information and principles that explain that information and condense it into ‘chunks’ (see Part 1: Foundation above).

Once you have internalised enough information to complete one level of the pyramid, you move onto the next.

Imagine you are at level ten of the pyramid and a ‘creative insight’ happens where you ‘see’ something from level twelve.

Most people put this down to luck or mystical insight, but this is a missed opportunity.

By deconstructing these insights – studying the context around them (behavioural and environmental conditions) and learning how to identify the relevant causal factors, one can progress to the next level by understanding what led to the creative leap.

Tactics come easy once principles are in the blood.

— — — —


Specify the overarching goal. Divide into small tasks.

Plan the day’s to-do list the night before and start with one pomodoro session to beat procrastination on the most challenging task first.

Build a trigger routine to put yourself in the zone at the beginning of each day. Cross them off daily on a calendar to create a success chain.

Work on gradually compacting the routine to the point of one single thought.

Once this has been perfected, begin focusing on specific emotions to channel such as anger or situations which put you out of the zone.

If you’re mentally stuck, change your physiology. The mind follows the body in this regard.


What learning strategies have proved most useful for you? Please share in the comments.

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Posted on: 19th January 2018

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